Among fellow countries of the globe, the United States of America is young; yet it boasts the oldest written constitution still in use today. The United States Constitution not only has deep roots in numerous aspects of the government, but has had immense effects on citizen life since its inception. A notable facet that exemplifies this concept is the debate, from its ratification and into the mid nineteenth century (with the ratification of the 14th amendment), over slavery and the Congress’ right over the practice of slavery within individual states. Many prominent abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, David Walker, and Frederick Douglass held debates regarding their opinions on the appropriate interpretation of the Constitution in relation to slavery. Frederick Douglass, of the three abolitionists mentioned, had the most intriguing and valuable journey towards his final interpretation. In his younger days, he stood by William Lloyd Garrison as a staunch supporter of the Constitution’s status as a pro-slavery instrument. By the end of his career, he was fiercely arguing in favor of the opposite side – that the Constitution advocated and supported the rights of all men, regardless of race. Frederick Douglass’ evolution of ideals regarding the Constitution is soaked in the amalgamation of a textualist approach and a socio-historical approach, which can be constructively applied to modern Constitutional interpretation debates that affect human rights, similar to the abolitionist movement of which Douglass was an essential contributor.
The majority of the framers of the Constitution were slaveholders, and consequently supported pro-slavery agendas. A member of the convention that framed the Constitution, John Rutledge, expressed his view that a prevalent expectation among the northern convention members that the Constitution may be able to curtail rights to import slaves was vain. Many southern representatives at the convention held similar views, and while there was no literal mention of the word ‘slavery’ or any explicit language referring to slaves, one could certainly point to the document’s use of the word ‘servitude’ as in reference to slavery. However ambiguous the language is, the fact remains that some, even the majority, of the framers supported slavery and practiced it themselves. This supported some debaters, as they implied that the original intent of the authors impacts the manner in which it should be read, interpreted, and enacted. Much of the movement that propagated the rhetoric around the Constitution as a pro-slavery instrument was initiated by prominent white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He and his fellow peers, Garrisonians, centered their argument around a slanted reading of the Constitution and inferences drawn based on the intentions of the framers. A lecturer at a City Hall that Douglass attended cited the Constitution’s “Article 1, section 9 … Art. 4, section 9 … Art. 1, section 2, … and Art.1 section 8…”, making generous conclusions about phrasing and diction.
For the majority of the decade of 1840, Douglass was a supporter of the Garrisonian interpretation of the constitution. An essential aspect to the Garrisonian interpretation is the socio-historical approach, wherein the interpreter takes into account the social climate of the time, and, in this case, the ‘original intent’ of the document as the framers intended. As Douglass himself said in 1849, “The original intent and meaning of the Constitution (the one given it by the men who framed it, those who adopted it, and the one given it by the Supreme Court of the United States) makes it a pro-slavery instrument.” This Garrisonian phase of his evolution of thought regarding the Constitution is steeped in social context and characterizes his experience with the socio-historical approach. He reached his conclusion by not only utilizing the text itself and the context in which it was written, but in the decisions by the court through American history (as of then) and the practical consequences of such decisions.
“Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.”
A sentiment first brought into mainstream thought by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but has evident influence on Douglass’ mind during his transition to his new stance on the Constitution. In the March 1849 edition of Douglass’ newspaper The North Star, he began to lay the framework for a public change of opinion. In a sort of year-long preface to his formal announcement of his change of opinion, he wrote “The only truly consistent man is he who will, for the sake of being right today, contradict what he said wrong yesterday.” as he preceded his new statement that would “contradict what he said wrong yesterday.”
On the 23rd of May in 1851, Douglass published his “Change of Opinion Announced” in The North Star. This was the start of his new crusade against “what he said yesterday”. He was now formally a constitutional abolitionist, and contended that the federal government was warranted to abolish slavery, including states in which it was legal, and could do so due to the power given to the government by the Constitution itself. The new method of interpretation that empowered Douglass to be confident in his new views was a textualist one. The slaveholders of America and those who held Garrisonian views claimed that slaves were not entitled to the rights upheld by the Constitution – Douglass’ rebuttal would be that their assertions are not confirmed by the language of the Constitution itself. At this point, Douglass has experienced, defended, and lectured with the support of both his initial socio-historical analysis as well as his newly developed textualist approach. Albeit with many conditional clauses, Douglass states that “The Constitution of the United States, standing alone, and construed only in the light of its letter, without reference to the opinions of the men who framed and adopted it, or to the uniform, universal and undeviating practice of the nation under it, from the time of its adoption until now, is not a pro-slavery instrument.” He is defining the textualist approach to the interpretation of the Constitution by excluding his previous considerations in terms of sociological jurisprudence.
As remarkable as it is that Douglass managed to not only change his mind but also to maintain the logic and rationale he had seen in a sociological approach, and ended with a fusion of ideals that served to distinguish his course of thought. Not only was his synthesis of the two striking among his contemporaries, but to the modern day few historical figures have managed Douglass’ level integration.
Since the early 2000s, the United States has been reeling from shooting after shooting – and every incident has brought the courts back to the Constitution of 1787. The debate centers around the Second Amendment, and the methods of interpretation used are heavily reminiscent of the two that Douglass had managed to integrate hundreds of years before. The controversy is still active and will likely take much action on the part of citizens and the government alike to change, but, similar to Douglass’ activism, the issue is one of interpretations and considerations. If, in the modern day, people learned from Douglass – his concordance with Emerson about what makes a truly consistent man, his strength to change, and his ability to symphonize two seemingly opposing views – the United States may see a different result from these shootings.
“Where human liberty and justice are at stake, the case falls under an entirely different class of rules. There must be something more than history – something more than tradition.”
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